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Asiatic Wild Ass, Little Rann of Kutch

THE SALTFLATS AT THE LITTLE RANN OF KUTCH HAD BEEN CLOSED BY HEAVY RAIN for three days just prior to our arrival but fortunately they had a chance to dry out enough for us. A traditional camel cart welcome in the small town of Zainabad put a smile on our faces and we were delighted to see that one of the regular Pallid Scops Owls was present in the lodge gardens. This bird breeds across a wide range from Turkey to Pakistan but many of its regular haunts are now off limits to western travellers making the birds in Gujarat some of the most accessible remaining birds. This year’s experience was better than usual as I have never seen one choose such an exposed daytime roosting perch! However, the main reason we visit the Little Rann is for its lovely Asiatic Wild Asses and although not as plentiful as usual we were still able to spend time photographing a couple of groups of them. One silhouetted against a salt flat sunset and another in early morning light, feeding along the edge of the mesquite fringes of the flats. They were, as always, surprisingly delightful to folks who had not seen them before.

Our regular night drive across the hard-baked salt flats, which are basically a monsoon lake was light in variety but high in quality. We saw no fewer than 15 of the very sought-after and range-restricted Sykes’s Nightjar and managed to get very close to a couple of spot-lit birds using our well-drilled nightjar technique. During the day the wide-open spaces of the salt flats of the Little Rann present a surreal and barren landscape but they are still inhabited by few creatures. Our meanderings here included an Indian Grey Mongoose peering from its burrow, Wild Boar, Nilgai and some obliging Common Cranes, more Indian Thick-knees, Southern Grey Shrike, Desert Wheatears, Long-billed Pipits and a lovely male Steppe Merlin of the Central Asian form pallidus, as pale as a Shikra(!) but pride of place went to an endangered MacQueen’s Bustard, although it could have been a lot more obliging for the photographers! This bird has a dwindling wintering population in western India and Pakistan but it would help if Arabian falconers would stop hunting them please! Sadly our attempts to find some photogenic Indian Coursers were thwarted by the birds flying off into the distance at first sight of us. The bird-thronged wetlands south of Zainabad were thronged a bit out of range of our DSLRs but the flocks of Lesser and Great Flamingos, Common and Demoiselle Cranes and numerous ducks and shorebirds were a fine sight nevertheless. We also enjoyed an opportunity to shoot some people here, visiting a delightful local family (originating from Rajasthan), who presented some very nice fabrics and allowed a privileged insight to their village life not to mention the chance to drink some of their excellent tea!

Sykes's Nightjar, Little Rann of Kutch

'Steppe' Merlin, Little Rann of Kutch

Pallid Scops Owl, Zainabad

Pallid Scops Owl, Zainabad

MacQueen's Bustard, Little Rann of Kutch.




A male Blackbuck pronking at Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar

BLACKBUCK NATIONAL PARK CONTINUES TO GROW IN POPULARITY, thanks to its wonderful nearby lodge of the same name. This place is one of our favourite lodges in India and, as well as the plush surroundings, complete with lovely open-air showers, we also enjoyed some more great encounters here. Photographically the best were the numerous Blackbuck, including some fine males, followed by Nilgai against the lovely grassland landscape, however, this is also probably the most reliable place in the world to see wolves and again we managed to see one, which as usual only allowed a brief distant opportunity. Jungle Cats also put in a couple of brief appearances in the long grass.

Blackbuck, Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar

Nilgai, Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar

The biggest avian surprise was a Sykes’s Nightjar, which flew past our jeeps in broad daylight and dropped down just ahead of us. It is rare to see one here, mostly owing to the park being closed after sunset but it may be a regular visitor? Squadrons of Common Cranes lined the horizon and a nearby wetland hosted Great White Pelicans, Greater Flamingos, spoonbills, Pied Avocets and a selection of common shorebirds. A few birds in the mesquite-lined avenues included gazillions of Black Drongos as well as Siberian Stonechats, Brown and Bay-backed Shrikes and there were still a few harriers (Pallid and Montagu’s) floating around, some of which take a short-cut through the middle of the lodge grounds on their way to and from their grassland roosting area. Unfortunately Striped Hyenas are no longer reliably seen here though, the regular male having died some time ago. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from this fabulous place and head northwest to the vast salt flats of the Little Rann of Kutch.

Sykes's Nightjar, Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar




Asiatic Lion cubs, Gir Forest NP, January 2015.

A SHORT FLIGHT ACROSS THE GULF OF CAMBAY took us from smoggy Mumbai to Rajkot on Gujarat’s Kathiawar Peninsular where we began our latest Indian adventure, as usual, with the first of many spicy masala omelettes and masala chai (India’s popular ginger and cinnamon-spiced milky tea), in a rather grand local hotel. Soon we were on our way south to Sasan Gir, our base for the next two nights. The forests of Gir hold the last remaining population of Asiatic Lions, a subspecies of lion whose range once extended from Central India as far west as Macedonia. Whilst very similar to its African relatives Asiatic Lions have a distinctive longitudinal fold of skin along their belly, generally thinner faces and the males have a shorter and more blackish mane. The lions of Gir are also renowned for their approachability, which usually makes them good photographic subjects.

Fortunately Gujarat is now back to a more normal water supply situation following the failure of the 2012 monsoon taking pressure off the dry deciduous teak forest. However, the lions were not as co-operative as usual but thanks to our very helpful local contacts, we still managed a very good encounter with a pride of nine of these impressive cats. Terrific stuff! Birds are always a feature of our jeep safaris at Gir and we had a few good photo subjects, including Crested Serpent and Hawk Eagles, Indian Thick-knee, Yellow-wattled Lapwing and a fantastic battle to the death between a Common Woodshrike and a mantis. The latter put up a good fight but eventually succumbed. Other mammals at Gir included many Spotted Deer (or ‘Chital’) as well as a few Nilgai (or ‘Blue Bull’ – the massive Indian antelope) and Sambar deer.